August 27, 2012 | by Amanda Gunn
The most comforting thing in the world to me is the absolutely disgusting stench of my dog’s breath. It’s true. For the past decade it hasn’t mattered where I have been or what I have been doing, I have come home every night to a tiny creature who thinks I’m the greatest thing since sliced dog treats and wants nothing more than to lick my face.
When I’m sick, he curls up next to me and patiently waits for me to get better. When I can’t sleep, he cuddles. In return, regardless of how much I work, I repay him with two to three walks a day like clockwork. No matter how busy I am, I make time.
You can imagine how delighted I was upon learning one of the unofficial perks of my new job is that I can bring my puppy to work with me as long as he isn’t a distraction. Hooray!
It’s a good strategy, too, because after having him at work with me for about a week I realized I no longer had any reason to go home. My workdays grew longer and I was just pleased as punch. Until it hit me: How totally screwed up is it that I couldn’t think of a reason to go home?
You see, there is a certain type of graduate student who hits the ground running because they want to move to the next stage. Unfortunately, I was the queen of that type of student. I worked my, er, tail end off because I had it in my head that the next step was going to be different. How many times have you heard a graduate student begin a sentence with, “I can’t wait to graduate so I can…”?
A year before I started graduate school I had a life, but by the time I arrived it was gone. As a byproduct of this, I saw getting through the program as my ticket to having a life again. I knew I had to do a really great job of it to get a good position after I graduated, so I drowned myself in PubMed and transfected on weekends.
Graduate school became my life, and by the time I had my first-author paper, and my methods chapter, a smattering of second- to middle–author papers, etc., I had been transformed. I was the person who had a habit of thinking there was another world outside of science, who vaguely remembered what it was like to live that life but hadn’t quite grasped (yet) that science is the life I want.
Six months later, I am technically only required to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, in an environment where the more senior people think you are crazy for doing more.
Yet, here I am. At all hours, working weekends, browsing PubMed. Where before I felt like I had to do these things, now I could just kick back a little. My coworkers with jobs similar to mine have had those jobs anywhere from 10 to 30 years. This could be it.
But it isn’t it. I love science, and the truth is you can never stop if you want to keep going in science. Right now, I am the director of a program, the youngest instructor in the department, and I get to do my own research. That is awesome beyond words, but the next step is to find a visiting scientist position, visiting professorship or tenure-track position in a few years. After that it’s working toward tenure, and after that it’s working toward full professor, and by the time you get there you have a ton of students and younger professionals depending on you, so it isn’t like you get a break then, either.
The point is that if you love science, do science. I have finally learned the lesson that, while of course it is important to be working toward the next stage in your career, what you have is all you’ve got. There is no reason to rush because the next stage will feel exactly the same as this one does.
On that note, my dog and I will be leaving work a little early today. Maybe we will go to the park and chase squirrels. Who knows? But if I keep working at the pace I have been, I will burn out. Whether you are interested in going the principal investigator track, tenure track or an alternative career, try to find a reason to go home. If you burn out, you will never get there.